As I mentioned in the latest episode of the Heidelcast, I am not a big fan of Oral Roberts (1918–2009). Please do not misunderstand me. He is a great American success story. Born in poverty, in Oklahoma, he helped to impel a major religious movement (Pentecostalism) in the USA. He founded a broadcasting empire, a university, a medical center, and a retirement center. He was a classic American religious entrepreneur. He might have been born at the turn of the 19th century as well as at turn of the 20th century. His theology, piety, and practice were right out of the Second Great Awakening. In March, 1987 he announced that he had, as all good Pentecostals and Charismatics do, received a “word from the Lord.” That word was the Lord would “call” him “home” if he did not raise $8,000,000 for medical scholarships. According to the wire service coverage from the period, he was filmed climbing to a “sparsely furnished” spot half-way up the “prayer tower” to fast and pray for the remaining $1.3 million. He did well for himself. Through the 1980s and 90s the empire flourished. By the early 2000s, however, longstanding questions about finances and management re-emerged as the school was $50,000,000 in debt even Roberts had a nice mansion in Beverly Hills.
Roberts’ dubious theology and fiscal management notwithstanding, every American who still believes in the founding principles of this country ought to come to the aid of Oral Roberts University. Indeed, once upon a time, that is exactly what such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union would have done. Why? Hemal Jhaveri, in the pages of USA Today, has called for the exclusion of the Oral Roberts University men’s basketball team from the NCAA tournament on the basis that ORU’s traditional ethic, influenced by the holiness and pentecostal traditions (of which Jhaveri apparently knows nothing), offends her late-modern sensibilities. ORU forbids homosexual activity and it also forbids heterosexual sex outside of marriage. Jhaveri calls such prohibitions “antiquated.” So, President Obama’s objection, on professedly religious grounds, in 2008, to homosexual marriage also places him outside the pale? Should he be cancelled because he once held religious views that Jhaveri now finds objectionable?
That Oral Roberts wants to keep its students tied to toxic notions of fundamentalism that fetishize chastity, abstinence and absurd hemlines is a larger cultural issue that can be debated. What is not up for debate however is their anti-LGBTQ+ stance, which is nothing short of discriminatory and should expressly be condemned by the NCAA.
“Toxic.” “Fetishes.” “Discriminatory.” “Condemned.” There is more:
Yet, Oral Roberts, with its decrees banning homosexual conduct, stating that marriage is only between a man and a woman, and specifically banning male students from wearing makeup, earned a ticket to the Big Dance even though the university’s foundations expressly go against the very things the NCAA say they value. The fact is, any and all anti-LGBTQ+ language in any school’s polices should ban them from NCAA competition.
Any institution that holds anything like the historic Christian sexual ethic should be banned from NCAA competition? Who died and made the NCAA the arbiter of morality? Of course ORU discriminates but so does Hemal Jhaveri. She is calling upon the NCAA to discriminate against ORU. Incoherence, thy name is Jhaveri.
My scope here is to note the rapidly shifting cultural norms in which Christians are conducting their pilgrimage. It is also to say that those Christians who think that they can, to shift metaphors, surf the latest cultural tide to remain “relevant” are quite mistaken. The good news is that there is, as they say in football, daylight between the pagans and the Christians. There was a time when polite society required Americans to pretend to sympathize with historic Judeo-Christian ethical norms, even as they defied them privately. That time is past. The truth is that Christians who understand and believe Christian ethical norms are a diminishing lot. We might wish that the postmillennialists were right but all the evidence is to the contrary. Much of evangelical cultural engagement has been driven by the transformational model but transformationalism, at least as it was originally envisioned, has evidently failed. Judging by recent events at Calvin University, the culture is transforming the transformationalists. Whom would Kuyper have supported, the students at the table or the students who were outraged? If you hesitated you do not know Kuyper. My friend Lester Cahill is correct. Christians should take a lesson from Black American experience. Black Americans were subjugated, humiliated, marginalized and still, despite all that was done to them, they developed their own banks, their own schools, and their own cultural institutions. Christians can do the same. If the NCAA will not have ORU perhaps Christian institutions should not have the NCAA? We should not ignore the tide represented by this scurrilous editorial.
There was a time, not very long ago, when the editorial screed published by USA Today would have been unthinkable. For much of the 20th century, the USA was at war with fascism (actual fascism, not the guy in the Starbucks line with a hat you do not like) and later, during the Cold War, with Communism. During those decades there was a great emphasis on the classic American definition of liberty, i.e., the relative absence of restraint. The old American assumption was that one was free to do as one willed so long as there was no law to the contrary. Today, that assumption is largely unknown in the blue states, where the assumption is just the opposite: we may only do what the government permits. In the wake of the wars against tyranny—we saw a resurgence of the old way of thinking, briefly, after 9/11—Americans would have been loathe to publish such a piece because it would have been seen for what it is: an attempt to shame and exclude Americans from participation in society on the basis of their religious beliefs. That is just what the Fascists and the Communists did. That is un-American. Now, the un-Americans, those who flatly reject the principles on which the country was founded, are in charge of the culture and they are feeling their oats. They will go as far as and as quickly as Americans permit them and we Americans permit them when we elect them and empower them politically, culturally, and financially.
Christians need to know where they are and where they are not. This is not Eisenhower’s America. This is not Reagan’s America. We no longer live in Clinton’s America—remember the RFRA? We do not even live in Obama’s America. The whipsaw from Obama to Trump and back again (so far, the Biden Administration makes the Obama Administration look positively conservative) has left us in a strange new world where the reigning morality of the elites regards rejection of same-sex relations and marriage and the rejection of the transgender ideology—we have a transgender cabinet secretary—as immoral. The old Wesleyan and Pentecostal holiness codes are a “fetish.” A man pretending to be a woman is fine but abstinence from sexual immorality is “toxic.” ORU plays Arkansas this Saturday. Despite their allegedly backward Christian ethics, ORU managed to make to the “Sweet Sixteen.” They defeated Ohio State and a stout Florida team. It would be a shame if Christian schools were no longer able to participate in NCAA-sanctioned sports but there is a larger question afoot here.
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